Friday, September 6, 2019

Ark II: The Complete Series

by G. Jack Urso

For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement:
 
Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission  to bring the hope of a new future to mankind.
     Opening narration to Ark II
Ark II is a short-lived CBS sci-fi series that aired at 11 A.M. Saturday mornings from September to December 1976. The show was created by Martin Roth, who wrote for many of the most popular TV shows from the 1960s through the 1990s, and the executive producers were Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer, who also produced Space Academy, Jason of Star Command, and Star Trek: The Animated Series, with which Ark II shares its sound effects library for computer and sensor sound effects. The series details the adventures of three young people traveling around in an RV equipped with advanced technology, and a talking chimp, seeking to help those who survived the unchecked pollution and toxic waste which devastated the planet and reduced civilization to scattered isolated tribes and villages. The complete series is available below from a dedicated YouTube channel.

Aeolus 13 Umbra has reviewed several 1970s Saturday morning sci-fi TV shows, including Land of the Lost, Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command, but if I had to choose just one quintessential 70s Saturday morning sci-fi show it would be Ark II. The costumes, vehicles, props, and eco-friendly storylines, definitely have a sense of the zeitgeist of the era. When researching the series, I didn’t think I would find much, but was surprised to see that it maintains a small core of dedicated, if middle-aged, fans who carry on the show’s legacy with videos, prop replicas, and models. Articles and blog entries are numerous, including one by author, director, and film critic John Kenneth Muir who reviews each episode of the series.

The program stars Terry Lester as Jonah, Jean Marie Hon as Ruth, José Flores as Samuel, and Moochie the chimp as Adam. The crew is ethnically diverse with Northern European, Asian, and Hispanic heritages being represented. A biblical theme is apparent, not just in the names of the RV and the crew, but also the idea of searching a devastated land in search of survivors. The resolution to each episode is usually a recap of the moral, or lesson, of the day, and usually involving some environmental theme. In addition to the expositions, there is a certain amount of conflict and action and adventure, but at a fairly tame level and real physical violence is shown. Ark II is, after all, a children’s show. In the years following the creation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (NCCPV) in 1968, Saturday morning programs that showed any level of physical violence were targeted for criticism, such as Space Ghost, The Herculoids, and Birdman, all of which were cancelled in 1968 and 1969, respectively. Shows that were educational in nature generally won the networks recognition for their efforts, if not always ratings.

Synopsis

The series, set 500 years in the future, takes place in the year 2476. Ark II is an advanced mobile laboratory that also houses the four-wheel Ark Roamer all-terrain vehicle and the Jet Jumper rocket pack. The crew of three young scientists includes intrepid commander Jonah (Terry Lester) and his assistants Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), Samuel (José Flores), and a talking chimpanzee named Adam (played by Moochie and voiced by executive producer Lou Scheimer). I'm not a big fan of talking chimps, but the concept is not overplayed and most of the action revolves around the human actors. The use of sign language among the chimpanzee received widespread publicity in the early 1970s, so it was not too much of a stretch to believe that in 500 years rudimentary simian voice abilities will also develop. Shades of Planet of the Apes, which also features an Earth devastated by human civilization? Sharped-eye viewers will notice the reuse of left-over sets from Planet of the Apes in such episodes as “The Mind Group and “Orkus.” Ark II shares similarities with the Logan’s Run TV series, also about three people from a highly technological society traveling a wasteland in an advanced vehicle and encountering new communities of survivors every week. All three series could conceivably fit into one continuity, albeit at different times (Logan’s Run is set 300 years in the future and Planet of the Apes, 2,000 years).

The log number in the first episode is 1,444. Assuming one log per day, this means the Ark II crew is nearly four years into their mission; however, the log numbers in later episodes are much lower. Episode 2’s log is 406, episode 6’s log is 75, and so forth. The numbering is inconsistent and as episode 1 has the highest log entry number the events in that show must come after the last episode, whose log entry number is 42.
The Jet Jumper in flight!
As noted, the recurring device is that Ark II travels the wasteland looking to spread civilization to devastated areas. This enables the show to bring the protagonists to the conflict, than the conflict to the protagonists. The Logan’s Run TV series and Star Trek: The Original Series share this concept, itself based upon the TV series Wagon Train, which traveled the harsh environment meeting new communities along the way. Gene Roddenberry, in fact, pitched Star Trek as a “Wagon Train to the Stars.” Ark II, however, doesn’t vary from the concept. At least Star Trek had the occasional foray into the main characters’ background, visits to Star Bases and encounters with other Star Fleet vessels; however, Ark II has none of that. Every week, there was another village, another environmental theme, but we learn little about the world the Ark II crew comes from. We never visit their city nor meet others like them. Do Jonah, Ruth, and Samuel have families? Are there other Arks? Even for the notoriously cheap Filmation, creating logos and signage for an “Ark III” or “Ark IV” could not have cost much and seems like a lost opportunity to expand the Ark II mythos and break up the repetitive story lines with little added extra expense. Perhaps, if the series lasted longer, we may have seen that, but the lack of an expanded universe locked the show into a repetitive cycle of village after village and may be one of the reasons why the audience failed to connect with the series enough to see a full season.

All Aboard!

Terry Lester (Jonah), had just two credits to his name before being cast as Jonah, a small uncredited role in Airport 1975 and a guest starring role on the William Shatner-helmed Barbary Coast. With his blond hair and beard, and empathetic nature, Lester strikes an unconventional appearance for the traditional hero, but entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times — the laid-back 1970s. Indeed, Lester in Ark II reminds me of any number of Christian Youth Group leaders I knew at the time. A talented singer and piano player, later in his career Lester became better known for his work in the soap operas As the World Turns, Santa Barbara, and The Young and the Restless. He also managed to squeeze in a few prime time roles, including the infamous TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) and as a Kazon in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Maneuvers” (1995). He passed away in 2003 at 53 following health complications due to AIDS.

Ark II marks Jean Marie Hon’s (Ruth) first television credit, but she gives a strong, authentic performance for her initial foray into acting, despite the sometimes banal dialog the actors have to deal with. Hon's work is not too surprising given that she was trained as an NBC contract player for about a year or so before Ark II.  Her career spanned just nine years, but includes a recurring role in another classic short-lived 70s sci-fi series, Man from Atlantis, and ended in a reunion with Lester in the 1985 TV movie, Blade in Hong Kong. After leaving acting, Hon earned a doctorate in pharmacy and owned her own pharmacy in Ventura County, Calif., until her retirement in 2019.
 
José Flores’ (Samuel) first credit is a 1976 appearance in an episode of Barney Miller before he was cast in Ark II, the highest profile role in his ten-year career which essentially ended in 1986 (except for one further credit in a small part in the 2011 Mexican film La hija del capo mayor). As a minor, his parents were always on set, and as both he and Moochie the chimp, and sometimes Ark II itself, could only work a few hours a day, production had to move as quickly as possible. Despite his youth, Flores gives a sincere and often impassioned, if not always polished, performance as Samuel.  

The list of guest stars features a roster of both veteran and up-and-coming stars including, Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island), John Fielder (Tigger, Winnie the Pooh), Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space), Geoffrey Lewis (Any Which Way You Can?, Bronco Billy, Tom Horn), Malachi Throne (It Takes a Thief, Star Trek), a masked Del Monroe (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), and the always reliable Vito Scotti (The Godfather); younger actors such as Helen Hunt (Mad About You, Castaway), and Dawn Lyn (My Three Sons), and Mitch Vogel (Bonanza); and little-known character actors whose long list of credits date back to Hollywood’s Golden Era such as William 'Billy' Benedict, Guy Stockwell, Harry Townes, and even Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet turns up! There are many more than can be provided here, but the expert talent helps raise the episodes to their potential.

Tech and Toys

The costumes, jet pack, and vehicles are the iconic items from the series. The costumes look most directly influenced by Space: 1999  and are comprised of a silver-gray tunic with one arm and part of one pant leg in either red (males) or blue (females). Distinctive armbands and belts contained various technology such as communicators, trackers, and remote vehicle controls. The jet pack (dubbed the Jet Jumper in the series) is an actual Bell Rocket Belt and looks similar to the one used in Lost in Space. In Ark II, the Bell Rocket Belt seen in the series is flown by Nelson Tyler, an engineer and inventor (though not involved in the development of the BRB). The Bell Rocket Belt was developed for the U.S. Army in the 1960s, but was never acquired due to the short duration of the flights, approximately 20 seconds. The Jet Jumper footage was reportedly recorded in all in one day and then reused throughout the series.
Ark II (top); Landmaster (bottom).
The titular Ark II vehicle is the most recognizable piece of technology from the series. Though often mistaken for the Landmaster from the 1977 film Damnation Alley, it is a separate vehicle. Constructed by the Brubaker Group, Ark II was built on a garbage truck chassis and was difficult to navigate due to the low position of the driver’s seat.  According to the documentary The Launch of Ark II, the chassis cost $75 and the modifications $75,000 ($338 and $338,169.60 in 2019 dollars, respectively), As noted in The Unofficial Ark II Appreciation Page, someone sitting in the “fake” driver’s seat had to give directions to the driver, which made it an unsafe vehicle to even be around. So, those scenes of extras scrambling for their dear lives to get out of the way of Ark II as it rambled through a village probably didn’t require much acting. The vehicle was often breaking down, and with two to two and half days of production allotted for each episode a team of mechanics and welders had to be kept on stand-by in order to keep pace with the shooting schedule. After the series ended, the nose section of the Ark II was reused for the Seeker spacecraft in Filmation’s Space Academy, also produced by Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer.

The Ark Roamer.
Brubaker also constructed the smaller 4-wheeled “Roamer” (housed in the aft part of Ark II) based on its preexisting Brubaker Box Kit built on a Volkswagen Thing chassis. It was refitted with an automatic transmission due to the limited driving skills of the young José Flores and for those scenes where the Roamer was “driven” by Adam the Chimp or operated by remote control by one of the characters, in which case, a driver was hidden under the vehicle’s dashboard. 

The Ark II vehicle itself in the series is purportedly powered by non-polluting hydrogen, which it can create, and has its own food replicator eliminating the need for food storage, so problems regarding food and fuel were not an issue. Consequently, however, the lack of shortages of either eliminated a potential point of conflict in the series and contributed to repetitive story lines. The vehicle can also generate a protective force field, is equipped with a forward laser, a tractor beam, a retractable crow’s nest, and a variety of computer support gear. Oddly, the producers thought tape storage devices would still be used 500 years in the future. Additionally, the vehicle has no head lights, making night driving shots impossible.  

Though a hand laser is occasionally shown, it was really more of a tool than a weapon. A blinding hand-held light device was often used in defense, so the emphasis was on non-lethal responses to defusing conflict, though it’s effectiveness varied.

There was no merchandise produced during the Ark II series run, which is a bit odd since even the equally short-lived single season of Sealab 2020 managed a board game and a slides for the 1972 Kenner Give-A-Show Projector. Since Sealab 2020 didn’t last beyond the Fall 1972 season, merchandise development was concurrent with series, even if a full season of episodes, let alone a second season, would be produced. The same goes for the short-lived live-action Korg 70,000 B.C., which only managed 19 episodes for the 1974-75 season. Despite its nearly equal short length, Korg produced a board game, lunch box, and comic book tie-ins. Nothing seems to have been planned for Ark II and this was another missed opportunity for Filmation. Nevertheless, interest in show, while a small and niche market, remains and more than one model kit of the Ark II is currently available nearly five decades later after the show first ran.

Concluding Thoughts

Ark II’s main competition at 11 A.M. Saturday mornings was Land of the Lost, in its third and final season, and the second half hour of the 90-minute Kroft Supershow whose segments included the popular "Electra Woman and Dyna Girl," making stiff competition for the environmentally-minded series. With the hugely successful Land of the Lost winding down, and the fast-action and variety of the The Kroft Supershow, the slower-paced Ark II must have paled by comparison. CBS moved Ark II to 12:30 P.M. Saturdays in February 1977; however, by noon network affiliates were allowed to cut away for local programming, and even if they did not, by that time most kids were summarily being licked out of the house after spending the entire morning in front of the television. Reruns were scheduled for Sundays in 1977, an unconventional time for a program meant to run on Saturday mornings, but even if ratings suddenly exploded, the demise of the show was already decided. By the Spring of 1977, production had begun on Space Academy and the Ark II vehicle was already being parted out to build the space-going Seeker for the new series.
Jonah gets ready for flight with help from Ruth.
As a child of the 1970s, I can attest that interest in the environment, and particularly among the youth, was at all-time high. In addition to being woven into the storylines of Saturday morning children’s shows, it was also integrated into our curriculum and taught by young ex-hippie teachers turned-on to “thinking green.” Environmental warnings were even included in commercials and prime time TV shows, and sometimes to great effect. The 1971 Keep America Beautiful “Crying Indian” public service announcement (PSA) was responsible for raising awareness and decreasing visible street litter. In the 1974 All in the Family episode, "Gloria's Shock," Mike warns Gloria of the hole in the ozone caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), found in everything from hairspray to deodorant to refrigerators. In the months following when the episode aired, there was an immediate drop in sales of household products containing CFCs, reported an Apr. 10, 2019, Sierra Club report. CFCs were finally banned in the United States in 1978. In the 1970s, from compact cars to trash compactors, environmental awareness was considered part of being civic-minded.
 
If someone were to have asked me in 1976 where we would be today as a society regarding pollution, I would have expressed faith in our advanced technology and my fellow Americans that we will have solved our environmental problems. Disappointingly, while our knowledge has increased, and the threat of Climate Change worsens as politicians seeking to maintain their power exploit the fear and ignorance of their supporters by casting doubt on proven scientific research. Long-standing pollution regulations and environmental law are being rolled back. In the summer of 2019, the Arctic Ocean was devoid of all ice for the first time in recorded history. Polar bears and other arctic animals are seeing their ecosystems literally melt away right in front of their eyes. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, vast man-made forest fires to clear off land for cattle consume vast acreage of important belts of oxygen-generating jungle canopy, not to mention the displacement and death of indigenous animals and human tribes. Instead of progressing, we seem to have taken a giant step back and the future warned of by Ark II seems one step all that much closer.

Give me talking chimps any day.

Ark II Log, Entry Number One: I Jonah, Ruth, Samuel, and Adam, are fully aware of the dangers we face as we venture into unknown, maybe even hostile areas, but we’re determined to bring the promise of a new civilization to our people and our planet.
     Opening narration to Ark II

Sources: Internet Movie Database, Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV, The Unofficial Ark II Appreciation Page, The Launch of Ark II, TVParty.


Ark II: The Complete Series
Descriptions by G. Jack Urso. Click on the links below to view the episodes
on the Aeolus 13 Umbra Ark II TV YouTube channel!
 
Episode 1: The Flies | Original Airdate: September 11, 1976
A band of orphans led by a thief, Fagon, find a canister of poison gas they plan to use against the dreaded War Lord Brack. The crew of Ark II must stop them before people die.  Guest Stars: Jonathan Harris and Malachi Throne.

Episode 2: The Slaves | Original Airdate: September 18, 1976
Baron Vargas, who uses “magic” to control his people, captures Jonah is captured by a local Baron while scouting a village. Ruth, Samuel, and Adam must create their own “magic” to free Jonah and free his enslaved people. Guest Star: Michael Kermoyan.

Episode 3: The Wild Boy | Original Airdate: September 25, 1976
The crew of Ark II encounters a feral young man, a new village, and glowing crystals which produce a strange effect on anyone near them. Guest star: Mitch Vogel.

Episode 4: The Robot | Original Airdate October 2, 1976
Samuel builds a robot, Alpha-One (Alphie), who proves to be a problematic member of the crew. Nevertheless, Alphie helps save a village from the pollution of a poison gas source, but the effort is not without a sacrifice. Guest Star: Robby the Robot (from Forbidden Planet).
Jonah, Samuel, and Ruth welcome Alpha-One, aka, Robby the Robot.

Episode 5: Omega | Original Airdate October 9, 1976
A super-computer encased in a black monolith controls an entire village, but Jonah’s plan to free the people is complicated when Samuel falls under its control. Guest Stars: Helen Hunt and Harry Townes.

Episode 6: The Tank | Original Airdate October 9, 1976
Ark II encounters a village where machines are forbidden, but when the village leader, his daughter, Jose, and Adam are captured by scavengers, a villager’s secret rebuilt tank comes to their rescue. Guest Stars: Marshall Thompson and Bonnie Van Dyke.

Episode 7: The Cryogenic Man | Original Airdate October 23, 1976
The Ark II crew defrosts two cryogenically frozen businessmen from the 20th Century who want to restart production of their “miracle” fertilizer, but when it is discovered that the product is toxic, one businessman wants to remove the crew as a threat to his plans. Guest Stars: Jim Backus and John Fiedler.

Episode 8: The Rule | Original Airdate October 30, 1976
Ark II finds a village that operates under “The Rule,” which, in order to guarantee the village’s survival, commands the elderly, disabled, and sick be exiled to a cruel fate. Guest Stars: Philip Abbott and Davis Roberts.
The crew prepares to eat in groovy 70s’ style.

Episode 9: Robin Hood | Original Airdate November 6, 1976
The ruler of Medieval English-like village (only with motorcycles) starves his people by using grain to make alcohol for fuel. The crew of the Ark II must work with their Robin Hood to free the village from the evil lord’s grasp. Guest Stars: Richard Angarola, Johnny Doran, Victor Rogers, and Alfie Wise.

Episode 10: The Drought | Original Airdate November 13, 1976
Taking advantage of a widespread drought, Fagan (from episode 1) returns with his “Flies” to capture Ark II and steal a time capsule containing a cloud seeding device. Meanwhile, Ruth, Samuel, and Adam are caught by a tribe who worships the time capsule as a sacred totem. Guest Stars: Jonathan Harris and Richard Balin.

Episode 11: The Lottery | Original Airdate November 20, 1976
Ark II goes to help a “once rich community which has squandered its resources and is now in trouble.” There, the crew finds a despot who uses a “lottery” to sending his enemies into an alternate dimension — the dreaded “Forbidden Zone.” Guest Stars: Zitto Kazann, Jim Boles, and Eric Boles (father and son, respectively).
Samuel and Adam enjoy a game of 3D chess. In the 1970s,
my family had the same 3D chess board and I still have the pieces!
 
Episode 12: The Mind Group | Original Airdate November 27, 1976
War Lord Brack (from episode 1) has captured three powerful psychic children with the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Ark II goes on a rescue mission but finds the children mistrust all “speakers” (those who are not telepathic). Guest Stars: Malachi Throne and Dawn Lyn.

Episode 13: The Balloon | Original Airdate December 4, 1976
Red balloons signal disease is ravaging a village, but the leader, who opposes vaccines and is afraid of outsiders, refuses the help of the crew of Ark II. Guest Stars: Guy Stockwell, John Beal, Del Monroe, and Mel Novak.

Episode 14: Don Quixote | Original Airdate December 11, 1976
A delusional old man who fancies himself as Don Quixote mistakes Ark II for a dragon, interfering with the crew’s efforts to disarm old explosives that threaten a peaceful village. Guest Stars:  Robert Ridgely and Vito Scotti

Episode 15: Orkus | Original Airdate December 18, 1976
A community of 500 year-old “immortals” maintains their longevity with a “provider” that keeps them young and protects the community, but poisons the water outside the village and accelerates the aging process of others — and Ruth and Adam are affected! Guest Stars: Geoffrey Lewis, William “Billy” Benedict, and Monie Ellis.

Episode X: The Secret Sea | Unfilmed
Russell Bates, who also wrote for Filmation’s Star Trek: The Animated Series, sold a script for a planned second season of Ark II that never took place. This episode has the crew exploring the restoration of sea life due to an underground source of fresh water. However, the food source for a nearby tribe of cave dwellers is tainted by poisonous plankton so they seek help from Ark II in finding a solution. Jonah, Ruth, and Samuel, go on an expedition and find the source of the freshwater, but the salty taste of the sea it pours into indicates that a salt-water source is nearby. Going on a subterranean underwater dive, the crew discovers a cave leading to a sea teaming with life, but also a bronze statue that is slowly disintegrating and distributing copper into the sea, and killing the poisonous plankton that has been sickening the villagers. The new source of food, free of the poisonous plankton, gives saves the villagers from illness and gives them new hope for the future. The log entry for this episode is numbered 116.

Special Feature: The Launch of Ark II (2006)
A behind-the-scenes look at the 1970s Saturday morning children's sci-fi series featuring interviews with cast and crew.

Special Feature: Ark II TV Promo (1976)
Promo for Ark II that aired on CBS.
 

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